Once again, the Detroit Pistons stood toe-to-toe with the Cleveland Cavaliers, refusing to be pushed around and bullied by the defending Eastern Conference champions. Once again, though, the Cavaliers' superior stars wound up overpowering Detroit's muscle, with Kyrie Irving coming up big to turn off the lights in Motown in the final minute of Friday's Game 3.
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With the Cavaliers holding onto a five-point lead in the final minute, the Pistons' small-ball lineup — Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Reggie Jackson, a five-man unit to which Stan Van Gundy had turned for less than one minute of floor time during the entire 2015-16 season — turned in 23.3 seconds of excellent defense, switching around the perimeter and stringing out Cleveland's possession before deflecting a pass out of bounds with 0.7 left on the shot clock. Two problems, though: seven-tenths is still enough for time a catch-and-shoot, and the Cavs have some real shot-makers ... like, for example, No. 2:
As Matthew Dellavedova prepared to trigger the inbounds on the left side of the baseline, Irving cut from the top of the key toward the right corner. LeBron James stepped up from his spot on the block to screen Harris, who'd been tracking Irving. As LeBron cut toward the ball, both Morris, who had been tracking James, and Aron Baynes, the reserve center Van Gundy had inserted in place of Johnson to protect the front of the rim, stayed with him.
With both Kevin Love (defended by Caldwell-Pope) and J.R. Smith (checked by Jackson) stationed on the strong side of the floor, that left absolutely nobody on the weak-side, meaning the screened-off Harris was the only one with any prayer of getting out to Kyrie. Dellavedova fired the pass to the far corner; Irving caught and fired in one motion ahead of Harris' leaping closeout; bang. Cavaliers by eight, 43 seconds left.
It was a honey of an after-timeout play design by Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, and the results left LeBron ecstatic:
... and Van Gundy beside himself:
A curious quick-two attempt by Jackson on the other end came up short, and that was all she wrote for the Pistons, as Cleveland came away with a 101-91 win that gives the Cavaliers the opportunity to end Detroit's first playoff series since 2009 in a sweep on Sunday. This marks the 10th time in James' career that his team has taken a 3-0 lead in a playoff series; he's won Game 4 seven times, and closed it out in five the other two.
The Big Three carried Cleveland to the win. Irving scored a game-high 26 points on 11-for-20 shooting, despite spending most of the game blanketed by the snare-drum-tight perimeter defense of Pistons stopper Caldwell-Pope. Love continued his strong series, working effectively out of both the block and the pick-and-pop to score 20 points on 7-for-10 shooting while grabbing 12 rebounds and dishing a pair of assists, working well to either attack or keep the ball moving by passing out of the double-teams that Van Gundy decided to spring on his post-ups in an attempt to break the star out of the rhythm he's found early this postseason.
James couldn't find the range on his jumper, needing 24 shots to score 20 points and making just four of 16 attempts outside the paint in Game 3 as Detroit's defense largely sagged off him to prevent him from driving, as teams like the San Antonio Spurs have done in past playoff series. But the four-time MVP contributed in other areas, pounding the glass for a game-high 13 rebounds, dishing seven assists and blocking a shot; Cleveland outscored the Pistons by 17 points in his 43 minutes of floor time, as Detroit just couldn't sustain the kind of effort needed to topple this top-flight opponent for the full 48 minutes.
Detroit started out strong. Jackson orchestrated effectively in the pick-and-roll, charting a path toward 13 points and 12 assists. All-Star center Andre Drummond (17 points, seven rebounds) made his presence felt on the interior — and, sometimes, maybe a bit too much:
Morris both knocked down shots and refused to give an inch when defending James and Love. Rookie Stanley Johnson — freshly chastened by Van Gundy for the give-no-effs interview in which he claimed to be inside LeBron's head and called James "fugazi" — worked hard and contributed on both ends of the court, scoring all nine of his points in the second:
The Pistons shot 60 percent from the floor in the first half and outscored Cleveland 26-12 in the paint, but still trailed by three entering halftime thanks to the Cavs' superior long-range shooting and the second-chance points produced by Tristan Thompson's tireless work on the offensive glass.
The Cavs began to take over in the third, holding Detroit to 8-for-22 shooting and putting together a pair of spurts that gave them a six-point lead entering the fourth, and that prompted Van Gundy to tell ESPN's Lisa Salters that his team just wasn't offering the fight needed to topple the No. 1 seed:
Cleveland pushed the lead to nine four minutes into the final frame before the Pistons made a push behind a couple of quick buckets from Harris. Down the stretch, Detroit played small-ball without Drummond, whom the Cavs had intentionally fouled at the 6:04 mark, who missed his free throws, and whom Van Gundy then yanked and kept off the court, as SVG said later, "you just can't do anything with him" late in the game. The quicker, faster Pistons got back within two at 92-90 when Jackson lofted a perfect lead pass for a KCP fast-break dunk in the vicinity of James that brought the Palace crowd to its feet:
On the ensuing Cavaliers possession, though, a LeBron drive would draw attention that opened up Smith in the near corner for a 3 intended to silence at least one member of that crowd, giving Cleveland a five-point lead:
Still, the Pistons had their chances, but late-game sloppiness — the failure to pick up a loose ball on the deck after a James miss before Thompson could scoop it up that gave Cleveland a second possession inside of 2 1/2 minutes remaining; Jackson committing his first turnover of the game by stumbling and losing the ball out of bounds with 1:08 left — scuttled what could have been a pair of productive possessions. Instead of kicking the door open, they left it just barely ajar ... and Kyrie slammed it shut, bringing the Cavs within one victory of a nice long break before beginning Round 2.
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